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Spotlight Report

Seminary ouster of outspoken gay points up issues

Focus put on orientation

By Sacha Pfeiffer, Globe Staff, 11/25/2002

Gavan Meehan says that talking about his sexuality while at St. John's Seminary resulted in his expulsion. (Globe Staff Photo / Jonathan Wiggs)
As a student at Harvard and then Yale, where different lifestyles mix uneventfully, Gavan Meehan found it easy and comfortable to be publicly gay. But after an inner tug to the priesthood drew him last year to St. John's Seminary in Brighton, his upfront acknowledgement of his sexual orientation brought a far different response.

''I'm not a person who wears my sexuality on my sleeve,'' said Meehan, 30, who said he was celibate. ''But as I become friends with people I tell them who I am.''

By March, amid a cascade of revelations about priests molesting children, Meehan's openness had become a source of discomfort for his superiors. The rector at St. John's, Bishop Richard G. Lennon, told him that some students were concerned about his homosexuality, said Meehan, who took the remark as ''a warning that I had to somehow change my behavior.''

Meehan wasn't about to do that. Instead, he remained outspoken, complaining at school forums about homophobia and criticizing the seminary for a climate that he said punished openly gay students and protected closeted ones.

In July, Meehan was dismissed. But he didn't go quietly. Meehan sent an angry letter to Lennon and other church officials accusing two students of violating their celibacy vow by having sex in a Boston department store dressing room, although he now acknowledges that he had no direct evidence to support his charge.

''I felt like I had to point out the hypocrisy,'' said Meehan. ''If you talk about being gay, even if you're celibate, that gets you in trouble. But if you're actually having sex and covering your bases, you don't have to worry about a thing.''

Meehan's public advocacy of his views, and his outspoken style, clearly contributed to the decision to dismiss him. But his case underscores the growing debate within the church over whether there is a place in the priesthood for gay men, even celibate ones. Already, many gay priests and seminarians feel they must conceal their sexual orientation to survive professionally in the face of a backlash against them fueled by the abuse scandal.

According to Catholic teaching, homosexuality by itself is not considered a sin, although homosexual acts are.

It is widely acknowledged that a large percentage of priests are homosexual in orientation. Still, the Catholic Church has no uniform policy on gay priests and guidelines on admitting gay men vary by seminary. The Philadelphia Archdiocese has said it bars gay men, even those who remain celibate, from its seminary, but it is an exception. Most seminaries, St. John's among them, say they admit gays as long as they follow church teachings on celibacy.

The issue ultimately will be decided by the Vatican, which recently announced it is drafting worldwide rules on whether gay men can be ordained. Comments by top church officials, including Joaquin Navarro-Valls, the chief spokesman for Pope John Paul II, suggest that restrictions, if not an outright ban, are likely. Navarro-Valls said in March that homosexuals ''just cannot be ordained.''

Until the Vatican rules, seminaries are left to make their own way. At many, public conversations about sex and sexuality are frowned on. That, Meehan believes, creates an unhealthy atmosphere of repression and secrecy.

His concerns are shared by the Rev. Donald B. Cozzens, a former seminary rector and author of several books about the church, who argues that gay priests who avoid coming to terms with their sexuality ''actually subvert healthy maturation.''

At the seminary, ''sexuality is talked about a great deal,'' Cozzens, a visiting professor of religious studies at John Carroll University in Cleveland, said in an interview. ''But it's talked about from a theoretical or theological perspective, not from personal experience or a person's individual struggles with sexuality.''

Church officials in Boston and Hartford declined to comment on specific details of Meehan's case, citing privacy issues. But the Archdiocese of Hartford, which sponsored Meehan's candidacy at St. John's because it has no seminary of its own, left little doubt that his outspoken views were his downfall.

Seminarians must be ''able to live within the community structure and allow that structure to function in the way it is intended to function without creating a disruption by being outspoken on particular issues,'' said Monsignor Gerard G. Schmitz, vocation director for the Hartford Archdiocese.

A seminarian's outspokenness could result in dismissal, Schmitz said, ''if it's causing great concern and disruption with the general community.''

Several attempts to interview Lennon were unsuccessful. The Rev. Christopher J. Coyne, a Boston Archdiocese spokesman and St. John's faculty member, would not comment specifically on Meehan. But speaking generally, he said, ''To enter into a Catholic seminary and continuously push an agenda that is not in keeping with the church's teaching on sexual orientation is problematic.''

Yet as Meehan's experience suggests, whether a gay seminarian abides by church teachings on sexuality can be a highly subjective matter, and one left to the judgment of church officials.

One standard is clear and unequivocal: celibacy. Any seminarian found to have engaged in sexual activity risks expulsion. But Meehan has consistently said he was celibate.

At St. John's, prospective seminarians are asked about their sexual orientation by a vocation director and during a psychiatric evaluation, but the information is one of many factors used to judge the fitness of aspiring priests, Coyne said.

''A man who is same-sex oriented can be ordained as long as he understands and is accepting of the promise of celibacy as the church understands it,'' Coyne said. ''The judgment call is not based on whether a man is gay or not. The judgment call is whether or not a man is committed to a celibate lifestyle and all that entails.''

What that means, Coyne said, is that ''it's inappropriate for a priest to get up in a public forum, a pulpit or even a private forum and talk about his sexuality, even if he's celibate, because that is not a matter of public discourse.''

That, Meehan believes, is where he crossed the line.

According to Meehan, church officials have officially said he was expelled due to differences of opinion over church teachings. But Meehan said he was told by Schmitz that his expulsion was the result of several incidents, including his decision to tell another student he was gay and his public criticism of the seminary's approach to sexuality at two forums sponsored by the rector.

Also, at a church gathering in Hartford, he was critical of the seminary for teaching that homosexuality is a moral choice and for discouraging discussions about ordination of women.

''The way the church addresses the issue of sexuality in the seminary does not foster maturity or honesty,'' Meehan said in an interview in Hartford, where he now lives. ''From day one when you enter the seminary, the mechanisms are there for repression and dishonesty. People who succeed most in moving up the hierarchy are the ones who can be most deceitful about their sexuality if they happen to be gay.''

Meehan said few of the roughly 75 graduate candidates for ordination at St. John's were openly gay, although he said six students told him in private that they were.

As for homophobia, Meehan said he sometimes heard students make cruel jokes and derisive comments about homosexuals, especially after the sex abuse scandal erupted in January and the issue of whether gay priests are partly to blame for the scandal became a matter of public debate.

In his year-end faculty evaluation, Meehan received a positive review. But ultimately, Meehan said, church officials concluded that he was a ''loose cannon'' whose outspokenness made him unfit for the seminary. In July, the Hartford Archdiocese notified Meehan that it was withdrawing its support for him, a move tantamount to expulsion.

Two months later, Meehan sent the letter calling another seminarian a ''closeted practicing homosexual'' who ''has had plenty of practice at the trade while at St. John's.'' In the letter, Meehan said the seminarian had ''fornicated'' with another seminarian in a store dressing room.

The letter triggered an investigation of the two students by seminary officials, who concluded that the accusation was based on ''hearsay'' and was not true, according to Coyne. Coyne called the letter ''mean-spirited'' and said it ''hurt the good reputations'' of the two students.

Meehan says he has no regrets about sending the letter.

''The hierarchy has to deal with this in a much more direct and open manner,'' Meehan said. ''The way it's dealt with now is that anything sexual is to be swept under the carpet.''

Sacha Pfeiffer can be reached at

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 11/25/2002.
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